Rachel Simon was browsing through a book stall at a conference in Itasca, Illinois, when she found herself drawn to a short book with an arresting title: God Knows His Name: The True Story of John Doe No. 24, by Dave Bakke.
The book told of a deaf African-American teenager found wandering the streets of Jacksonville, Illinois in 1945. No one understood his sign language, so no one knew who he was. A judge declared him "feebleminded" and he was put away in an institution where he remained until he died 50 years later.
The tragic tale haunted Simon and would ultimately inspire her to write The Story of Beautiful Girl, one of our September feature reads.
Simon's sister Beth has an intellectual disability and when she was born, in 1960, many doctors advised parents to place children like her in institutions. Simon's parents never considered doing so but, following the publication of Simon's 2002 memoir Riding The Bus With My Sister, she met people at disability-related conferences across the US with tales of personal and professional experience of such institutions that left her reeling.
"The reality of institutions had been widespread, yet no one outside of these conferences spoke about such things," says Simon.
In 2007, when the creative writing department where Simon had taught for a decade was restructured and she was let go, Simon says she sat down with a blank pad of paper, and "instantly" The Story of Beautiful Girl emerged. "It was only bits and pieces of ideas," says Simon, "but they got alchemized by the process of writing."
Q: The question of how society treats and cares for individuals with disabilities is a subject close to your heart. What, for you, was the most important thing about this particular story?
A: Two of the four narrators of the story have disabilities, and I tried to capture their inner life while presenting their perspective on life, love, society, and themselves. So few novels are told from the point of view of characters with disabilities and I've often felt that these individuals are as invisible in fiction as they are in society. Readers lose the opportunity to experience the world through the eyes of those who might seem different, but who have the same capacity to love, to long, to suffer, and to hope as any of us.
Q: The book has comparatively little dialogue, given that neither Homan nor Lynnie speak very much. What techniques did you use to develop their voices?
A: My sister has an intellectual disability, so even though their personalities have little in common, it felt fairly natural to me to imagine the way Lynnie would think, feel, and express herself. I did have to use my imagination to incorporate aspects of Lynnie's life that are unlike my sister's, especially her many years in the institution, her lack of education, and her selective mutism. I supplemented my imagination with research, conversations, and interviews with other people who've had those experiences, or have been close to someone who has, and then revised endlessly.
Homan's voice also came easily, though I was even more careful, since I am not, nor am I related to, anyone who is deaf. I read some biographies and autobiographies of deaf individuals, which helped me come up with the idea of Homan creating his own names for the people he meets. I realized that if he became deaf after he was old enough to speak, it would be easier for me to present his thoughts, since he could plausibly think them in words. In terms of his ethnicity, my sister's boyfriend, Jesse, is African American, and some of his childhood stories informed my understanding of Homan's past.
With both characters, I tried to write their voices in a way that gave me a little room to include words and concepts that they didn't understand, so the reader could fill in blanks they were unable to fill in for themselves.
Q: The Story of Beautiful Girl made the New York Times bestseller list within 2 weeks of release. How did you feel about such rapid commercial success?
A: It was thrilling! I have never written a New York Times bestseller, so it was really a dream come true. That said, it was even more thrilling to hear from readers who loved the story, stayed up all night because they couldn't put it down, and cried at certain critical moments because they so wanted things to work out for the characters.
Q: Do you know how the story you are writing will end before you start writing or does the storyline evolve? (Question from Barbara, Hawke's Bay)
A: I've never known the ending of my books until I've gotten there, except for The Story of Beautiful Girl, where the ending came to me within the first hour of handwriting my first chapter. This is quite amazing to me even now. I didn't know how to get to that ending except in the vaguest of ways, but I trusted that the climax of the book would be so powerful and emotionally satisfying that I was happy to work on that draft another year and a half, not to mention another couple of years on revisions. I think this is part of why writing the book was pretty easy.
Q: Sometimes aspects of a story that seem imperative at the beginning of the writing process can be irrelevant or confusing once the story is complete. Were there any such things culled from The Story of Beautiful Girl? Characters combined or situations omitted? (Question from Barbie, by e-mail.)
A: This is a great question. Originally the character of Sam wasn't a young man with spinal cord injury, but a young man with autism. I found the story stalling, though, so I shifted gears and found Sam as he appears now. I also omitted a section where Martha meets up with a former student who gives her the history of institutions. I couldn't keep it from sounding like a textbook, and I came to realize it was unnecessary.
There were also many places where I elaborated on scenes with too much detail. Eventually I realized that I needed to trust the reader to get what I was saying and I was able to delete about 200 pages.
Q: Which book(s) have you most enjoyed reading in the past year?
A: Room, by Emma Donoghue
State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett
Fortune's Rocks, by Anita Shreve
Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane